BACKGROUND. Research into general practitioners' responses to the changes in the health service has focused on the quantifiable dimensions of workload, stress, job satisfaction and mental health. AIM. This study set out to investigate general practitioners' practice orientations and responses to change. METHOD. The study was undertaken in 1992. 'Young principals' who had attended MSD Foundation regional courses were invited by letter to reflect on recent change in general practice and to give their views on morale and recruitment. RESULTS. Forty nine young principals responded (response rate 45%). Responses were found to cluster around four orientations to practice: collectivism, pragmatism, traditionalism, and alienation. These varied in terms of four underlying values: autonomy, individualism, external referent and optimism. CONCLUSION. General practitioners' responses to change are more complex than is currently understood and are influenced by orientation to practice. In a relatively homogeneous 'enthusiastic' subgroup of general practitioners there is striking variation in practice orientation.